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Making the grade: Oklahoma leaders, legislators give 2017 legislative session a C-

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Oklahoma Capitol

OKLAHOMA CITY – Although the legislative session ended with a budget that covered a nearly $900 million shortfall, recent legal challenges have placed that budget in jeopardy.

While it remains to be seen if the approved budget will stand, legislative leaders are already reflecting on this past session.

The Oklahoma Economic Report asked several state leaders to grade the legislative session.

This year’s composite grade is a C-, which is the lowest ever recorded.

Credit: Economic Report

Alicia Priest, with the Oklahoma Education Association, gave the 2017 legislative session an F, which was the lowest grade of the group.

“In public education, we looked to our leaders to put nearly one hundred school districts back on solid enough financial footing that they could resume educating children five days a week. We expected relief from a teacher shortage that placed 1,123 emergency certified teachers at the front of students’ classes. We looked to legislators to honor their campaign promises to raise educator pay in order to stop the exodus of new and veteran teachers from our borders.

A new class of freshman legislators gave us hope. They ran on platforms of moderation. They acknowledged that a government can’t cut its way to prosperity; rather, they recognized at times we must increase investment in infrastructure if we want our government to accomplish its true purpose of furthering the wellbeing of its citizens. Ultimately, however, our elected officials failed us. Our highest-ranking leaders blocked progress and our governor didn’t keep her word to veto a budget that made cuts or relied upon one-time funding.

After the dust settled, Big Oil continues to benefit from one of the most generous and needless tax breaks in the nation and those who protect the underfunded status quo continue to reign in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Oklahoma schools will resume in August still facing every fiscal challenge they desperately looked to the Legislature to address. Failure on that scale warrants only one grade: F,” Priest said.

Gov. Mary Fallin gave the session its second lowest rating of D+. She says that even as the session ended, it was clear that there are structural imbalances in the budget.

She says she was also disheartened that more criminal justice bills were not passed. However, she says the bright spots included a REAL ID compliance and bringing Amazon to Oklahoma City.

House Speaker Charles McCall gave the session its highest grade of B+.

“This was a very challenging legislative session. We faced a smaller budget shortfall than last year, but there was much less money in the Rainy Day Fund and there was little money laying around in revolving funds like we had in 2016. That meant tax increases- which require an almost impossible 76 vote threshold- or huge cuts to agencies. Nevertheless, we were able to close an $878 million budget gap and pass several important pieces of legislation.

The FY-2018 budget is not perfect, but it is an increase in total funding over FY-2017, holding 15 core agencies flat while other agencies received minimal 4 percent cuts and fully funding Medicare provider rates and protecting our 8-Year Transportation Plan. Three times House Republicans passed a teacher pay raise plan only to see it stall in the Senate. We put Oklahoma in compliance with the federal REAL ID Act. We also ended the costly zero-emission tax credit for wind, saving our state $500 million over the next 10 years. We created a task force to review agency spending and passed a bill allowing Oklahoma to collect taxes owed the state from out-of-state businesses. Despite a very difficult financial year, we accomplished much that will move Oklahoma forward,” he said.

Next session, lawmakers will come back to work in a similar situation.

Since they decided to use millions in one-time funds for this year’s budget, they are already facing a $500 million budget shortfall next session.